Man’s hanging in 1903 was Nebraska’s first state execution


Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The state of Nebraska killed its first man using a secondhand scaffold from Douglas County and a rope special ordered from Chicago.

But even in 1903, capital punishment was under fire in Lincoln.

A central Nebraska senator had introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty, long carried out by county sheriffs until the state took over the job earlier that year, the Lincoln Journal Star ( ) reported.

And a local woman petitioned Gov. John Mickey, asking him to delay the execution until the Legislature adjourned.

Mickey agreed to sign the repeal bill _ which had a slim chance of passing _ if it reached his desk. But he wouldn’t halt the hanging.

So at 12:53 p.m. March 13, a 28-year-old convicted murderer from Pierce County faced his final punishment in a vacant cell block at the Lincoln penitentiary.

“At that moment six prison officers touched an equal number of electric buttons,” the Lincoln Star reported. “One of them released the trap door.

“Not one of the assistant executioners knows which finger did the deadly work. They do not want to know.”

Gottlieb Neigenfind was buried in an unmarked grave at Wyuka Cemetery.

A century later, Kellie DeJong unearthed his story from her computer in Pierce County.

“I guess we always knew there was a murder in the family,” says her mom, Vickie.

They didn’t realize its historical significance until 2005, when Kellie spent the summer researching the case for a 4-H project.

Her findings now fill a two-inch binder on a bookcase packed with dozens of genealogical studies, most of them Vickie’s, documenting their family history - names like Buckendahl, Doose and Warneke.

One tells the story of three brothers, the Herbolsheimers, who emigrated from Germany. The oldest ended up in New York. The middle brother in Illinois. The youngest in Pierce County.

Kellie also built a Civil War book, which documents the veterans living in the area during the 1890s.

But Neigenfind’s story is most interesting, says Kellie, now 24.

“It was a lot to take in.”

Anna Peters was a mother of four, the widowed daughter of a well-to-do farmer and respected member of the Pierce community, about 20 minutes northwest of Norfolk.

News articles describe Neigenfind as “practically friendless,” a degenerate drunk with little money and an ugly temper. A man who was “easily excited to dark deeds by the violence of his passions.”

Their marriage lasted five months and five days. Neigenfind blamed her parents for the divorce.

On Sept. 11, 1902, he visited her family’s farm, demanding to see the son Anna had given birth to after they separated.

The family turned him away twice. So he went to town, bought a five-shot revolver and paid them a final visit.

He gunned down the father, Albert Breyer, fired upon the mother, who survived, then fatally shot Anna, pulled up her skirt and shot her again.

He attacked Anna’s sister, Linda Breyer, on the road as he fled, tearing at her clothes.

Dogs and deputies hunted him for days before two men ambushed him on a road southeast of Winside, 20 miles east of Pierce.

He emptied his revolver at them, missing with every shot but being made “a veritable pepperbox by the guns of his captors,” the Lincoln Evening News reported the next day.

Behind bars, Neigenfind told reporters he dreamed about the murders before they happened.

“My dreams always come true,” he said.

Anna Peters would be Kellie DeJong’s great-great-great aunt, and Albert Breyer her great-great-great grandfather.

Their graves settled long ago into the soil outside St. John’s Lutheran Church, which greets drivers along Nebraska 98 as they follow the curve into Pierce.

The DeJongs live a quick drive away; this is their church.

But they spend more time at the city cemetery south of town, Prospect View. More people are buried there, including family members who didn’t belong to St. John’s.

Vickie likes their stories. Kellie likes the gravestones.

“She’s always been a daddy’s girl,” Vickie says.

“But this is something Mom and I share,” says Kellie.

“When I have kids, I want them to know my history.’’

Her research took her to the county courthouse, to libraries in Pierce and Norfolk, and to the State Historical Society in Lincoln. The report won her a purple ribbon at the state fair.

Neigenfind’s crime falls nearest to their family tree, but a distant cousin is serving a life sentence in prison for the 2011 murder of her husband in Jefferson County.

And one of the most notorious mass murders in Nebraska history, the 2002 Norfolk bank shootings, happened just down the road from Pierce.

That, more than anything, is why the DeJongs support the death penalty.

“I’m in favor of it, and if you talk to people around town here, there’s a lot of them that are,” Kellie said.

Hangings didn’t always work, she said. But a century ago it took months - at most a few years - to carry out a death sentence.

“It was nice to have everything go bang-bang-bang right off the bat.”

Neigenfind dreamed about his trial, too. And about the gallows.

The night before his hanging, six months after his crimes, he asked a prison guard, John Burke, what it means to be born again.

It means to be reborn of spirit, not flesh, the guard told him.

“Well, I’ll tell you John,” Neigenfind replied. “You go to the phone Saturday morning and I’ll call you up and tell you all about the other world.”

The prisoner slept in the following morning. He ate beefsteak, eggs, broiled mackerel and cocoa for breakfast, bathed and shaved, and put on his suit.

Someone read him his death warrant.

He met with a minister, shook hands with reporters and friends.

Women from the Salvation Army brought him roses, wept, and asked if they’d see him in heaven. He said yes.

The Pierce County sheriff visited, and told the condemned man he was glad his ghost wouldn’t be able to shoot anyone back home. Neigenfind laughed.

He lunched on boiled beef with horseradish and buttered bread.

A hundred yards away, men joked and smoked cigars.

“Some mounted the steps and stood upon the trap door,” the Lincoln Star reported. “Others fingered the rope and the push-buttons, one of which was to send a man into eternity.

“The levity did not last long, however. As the time approached for the condemned man to enter the cell house a degree of seriousness came over the little crowd.”

A few dozen people - eight executioners, seven reporters, six doctors, witnesses and prison officials - watched as one guard bound Neigenfind’s ankles, another slipped a black hood over his head and a third fixed the rope around his neck, the knot resting behind his ear.

The warden signaled it was time.

“The man’s neck was broken by the fall, but it is very doubtful if he felt any pain,” the Evening News reported. “The horror of it lay in the deliberate, brutalizing character of the whole affair.”

Neigenfind hanged for 15 minutes before being cut down.

Prison staff turned him over to an undertaker, E. L. Troyer, who had offered to embalm Neigenfind and furnish a casket if he got possession of the body.

The next day, hundreds of men, women and children flowed through Troyer’s parlor on South 11th Street to see the corpse. One boy, under 12, pushed his bicycle down the street and shouted, “Did you see the man that was hung?’’

The police chief and the mayor tried to stop the public viewing, but Troyer persisted until the governor intervened.

Back at the prison, Neigenfind’s name was “on the lips of every officer, employee and prisoner.”

Pranksters even called Burke, the guard, that Saturday morning, claiming to be Neigenfind and ready to relate his experience from the beyond.

The scaffold was dismantled and placed in storage, the Evening News reported.

“If the bill abolishing capital punishment passes it will be serviceable for firewood if the state runs short.”

More likely, though, it would be used again later that year:

“Billy Rhea, the murderer of Herman Zahn of Snyder, Dodge County, is in the prison with the prospect of swinging ahead of him.”

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